Microsoft expands Power BI's visualizations with help from users

New gallery shows off custom graphs and charts for anyone to use

One of the challenges that business intelligence software users face is generating the right sort of visualizations for the data they have.

That's why Microsoft announced support for custom visualizations across its Power BI service Monday. Developers can now use tools provided by the company on Github to create .pbviz files that can then be imported directly into Power BI's web interface for use in analyzing data. (Microsoft will also be making that functionality available to the Power BI Desktop client next week.) 

Users who don't want to build or buy bespoke visuals can also pick from ones submitted by community members to a new Power BI Gallery site. Microsoft is hosting that site so people can more easily find and share custom visualizations with the world. Right now, there are a slew of options for users to choose from, including an animated fish tank with fish that resize based on the data source they're fed. 

Because those visualizations are all built using the same framework, they work similarly to native graphs and charts that come built into Power BI. When users click on a section of a chart, all of the other visualizations on a page will narrow down what they're showing to highlight what just got selected. 

Microsoft will be reviewing all of the submissions in its gallery, Technical Fellow Amir Netz said in an interview. It won't be going over them with a fine-toothed comb, just looking hard enough to make sure that they work and aren't hiding malicious code. 

Adding all of those user generated visuals is a massive boon for Microsoft, since the Power BI community produced more custom visualizations now than the team working on the product was able to create in the past four years. Moving forward, Netz said that Microsoft hopes to constantly add new visualizations to the service, moving them through review in less than 24 hours. 

Visualizations provided through the gallery are free, but Microsoft always links back to their publishers, so developers who want to make money from creating custom visualizations can offer a taste of what they're capable of through the Power BI gallery and then sell more bespoke graphs to customers outside Microsoft's ecosystem -- which can still be imported into Power BI and used like those visuals that come from the gallery.  

What's missing from all this is a system that helps users pick the right visualizations for the data they have loaded into Power BI. While having a massive selection of different graphs and charts is a boon for the service, Microsoft will need to find ways to better organize charts so people have an easier time finding what they need. 

Netz said that Microsoft will be adding functionality in the future that will allow people to rate and categorize visualizations to make high-quality ones in different fields more accessible. 

It's all part of Microsoft's ongoing push to compete with entrenched players in the business intelligence space like its Seattle-area neighbor Tableau. Microsoft laid the groundwork for all of this in July, when the company announced its tools for creating custom visualizations alongside the general availability of the Power BI service and Power BI Desktop app. 

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